The Dutch capital brims with art and culture, some of it pricey to experience, but much of it not, including the veritable living architectural museum that is the city center. Start by walking along the 400-year-old canals to marvel at the elegant, gabled townhouses lining them—or better yet, splurge on a bike rental (from around $9 at MacBike) to blend in with the locals.
You’ll pay admission at historical churches Oude Kerk and Nieuwe Kerk but not at Westerkerk, whose signature bell tower has become a symbol of the city. Recently restored to its golden-age glory, the Protestant church on Prinsengracht is the largest in the Netherlands. Anne Frank, who lived nearby, wrote in her diary that she was reassured by the ringing of its church bells. Another claim to fame: Dutch master Rembrandt is buried here. Come on Fridays at 1 p.m. from May to October for free organ concerts.
You could easily miss the wooden door that leads from bustling Spui Square to the Begijnhof, a secluded courtyard surrounded by medieval buildings that for several centuries housed Beguines—unmarried religious women who banded together to form communities. Tour the oldest home in Amsterdam, and don’t miss the chapel, where paintings and stained-glass windows tell the story of the eucharistic miracle of Amsterdam. Admission is free.
From a 16th-century woodcut map of the city to photos of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 “bed-in” at the Amsterdam Hilton, the Amsterdam Treasures collection in the basement of the (free) City Archives is a chronicle of early denizens, distinguished visitors, and more.
Visit the mod flagship of the Amsterdam Public Library (OBA), a ten-minute walk from Central Station. Peruse the books and music, lounge on comfy chairs to skim the papers, and take in a spectacular view of the city from the balcony on the top floor.
Instagram alert: A riot of colorful tulips and lilies beckons from barges on the Singel canal at the Bloemenmarkt, a floating market that harks back to the days when flowers were shipped from the countryside by boat.
Known for its rich trove of paintings from the Dutch golden age, including Vermeer’s “The Milk Maid,” the newly restored Rijksmuseum—and its brand-new Philips Wing—is well worth the admission price of around $22. Nonetheless, there are ways to experience the museum sans the steep cost: Roam its free gardens, which display sculpture exhibitions (past shows have featured works by Henry Moore and Alexander Calder) and architectural fragments, or check out the mini-Rijksmuseum at Schiphol Airport, which reopens in mid-2015 and features rotating exhibitions from the mother ship, gratis.
The Netherlands’ civilian militias have been the subject of countless paintings (the most famous, Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” hangs in the Rijksmuseum). The Civic Guards Gallery (Schuttersgalerij), a free section of the Amsterdam Museum, is an enclosed alleyway dedicated to such portraits, which date from 1530 and include Matthieu van Bree’s newly restored “The Entry of Napoleon in Amsterdam.”
Catch a free lunchtime performance (chamber music, orchestra rehearsals) at the Concertgebouw each week (usually on Wednesdays) from September to June. Pipj district nightclub Badcuyp hosts the occasional free show, including Sunday night jazz sessions. And the Bimhuis jazz hall invites the public to an improvisation workshop on Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
Visit the indie art galleries in and around the Jordaan neighborhood, including the architecturally focused Radar and the contemporary KochxBos, where past exhibitions have featured works by illustrator Femke Hiemstra, known for her creepy fairy-tale aesthetic.
Families with young kids love Vondelpark for its imaginative playgrounds, duck ponds, and free children’s shows at the open-air theater in summer. At the largest play area, near Groot Melkhuis café, parents can sip coffee while keeping an eye out as tots climb, swing, and dig in the sandpit.
Children ages 18 and under get in free at the Rijksmuseum, which offers a multimedia tour with a kid-centric game in which participants must solve eight museum mysteries. Pick up an audio device at the museum’s multimedia desk (about $3) or better yet, download the game for free from iTunes or Google Play.
The IJ channel commuter ferry is the ideal family diversion: scenic (get a great view of the waterfront), action-packed (watch cyclists rushing to make the boat), short (about five minutes), and free. Hop aboard behind Central Station.
Food & Drink
Amsterdam is crawling with street markets. The largest, Albert Cuyp (Monday to Saturday), sells everything from leather goods to syrup waffles. The Nieuwmarkt (Monday to Saturday) features an organics-only market on Saturdays. And the Sunday Market at Westergasfabriek—a former industrial plant—offers free food and drink samples in a lively atmosphere (open the first Sunday of the month).
You could fork over about $22 for a slick tour of the historic Heineken brewery or, for a fraction of the price, enjoy a pint fresh from the tanks at Brouwerij ‘t IJ, near the De Gooyer windmill in East Amsterdam. Tours in English, offered Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3:30 p.m., are about $6 but come with complimentary beer.
When the sun makes an appearance, locals vie for seats at the outdoor cafes in Dam Square to people-watch and enjoy the street performers.
Free guided walks leave from the National Monument in Dam Square at 11:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. daily. Reserve your spot by prebooking online for about $4 or just show up early. The three-hour tour takes in the Royal Palace, the Red Light District, the Anne Frank House, and more. Tips are welcome.
The Amsterdam Forest (or Amsterdam Bos) is the city’s Central Park—three times the size of New York’s—and features swimming pools for kids, a goat farm, an outdoor theater offering a full slate of performances in the summer months, and prime picnicking spots for watching planes take off and land at Schiphol Airport.